BAGHDAD — Even after death squads began killing his neighbors, after corpses appeared in the streets around his home and his family fled in fear, Walid al-Bahadli still believed in his once affluent and diverse neighborhood of Al Adel.
A Shiite Muslim, he had grown up there during the 1960s, when Sunnis and Shiites lived side by side in palm-shaded mansions. He vowed after he and his family moved away to safety that the family would return.
But as the Bahadlis have discovered, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis now seeking to go back to areas they fled during the bad times, going home again is never as simple as it seems. Instead, they find themselves perched along the next front in Iraq’s seemingly unending turmoil: the battle of return.
Across the country, near-record numbers of displaced families are pouring back, but instead of kindling a much-needed reconciliation they are in some cases reviving the resentments and suspicions created by bloody purges that carved Iraq into archipelagos of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds after the American-led 2003 invasion.
In places like Al Adel, some Shiite families view the Sunni families who stayed behind as complicit partners of the violent Sunni militants who overran many mixed neighborhoods. But many Sunni families say they now feel like they are being hounded by returning Shiites who, for the first time in centuries, have the force of the government and army at their backs.
In 2011, the number of returnees to Iraq soared by 120 percent from a year earlier, to 260,690, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They were drawn back by improving security and larger government payments to Iraqis registering as returnees. It was the most since 2004, when the fall of Saddam Hussein opened the gates for thousands who had fled his brutality, forced relocations and a decade of crushing sanctions.
As they continue to come home, they will test whether Iraq can move beyond a sectarian prism that distorts its politics and undercuts its security. It is a struggle that will play out in future years not just in politics and government, but in scarred, segregated neighborhoods like Al Adel.
And if the story of the Bahadli family and their neighborhood is any guide, it will be a return layered with friendship and forgiveness, but also distrust. And one stained with blood.
In Arabic, Al Adel means justice. After the 2003 invasion, it became a base camp for Sunni insurgents in western Baghdad. They carried out torture in seized houses and battled Shiite militias who had control of a nearby neighborhood. Nearly every Shiite family moved away, and residents estimated that 300 people were killed in a neighborhood of about 1,500 to 2,000 families.
Today, Al Adel blooms with loud markers of the Shiites’ return and ascent. Along the main streets fly black, green and red flags of Shiite mourning and martyrdom. The faces of Shiite clerics, living and dead, stare down from billboards. A new mosque for followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr has opened.
For Shiite Muslims who have returned over the past few years, these are footholds of identity. But Sunnis say they get the message: it is religious Shiites who now hold sway from Al Adel to the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “They see us as a threat,” said Mohammed al-Ani, 35, a Sunni government worker. “They are putting us through the same things that the Shiites suffered. Now, as a Sunni, I am afraid when I am home. I keep thinking that they will come and arrest me.”
They grumble about being harassed at the two checkpoints leading into the neighborhood, and they say that the soldiers who wave Shiite residents through demand identification of the Sunnis. Every few weeks, Sunni residents say, their houses are raided by soldiers loyal to Mr. Maliki.
“For nothing,” said one resident who asked to be identified by the nickname Abu Sama, a Sunni who has lived in Al Adel since the late 1960s and whose house has been raided several times.
Abu Sama lives next door to an old Shiite friend. They call each other brothers. But in private, Abu Sama seethes with a bitter sense of disenfranchisement that now sears the Sunni heartlands of Iraq, from the river valleys of Diyala to the deserts of western Anbar to the irrigated central plains of Salahuddin. He sees conspiracies against the neighborhood’s Sunnis in the home searches and the periodic arrests of scores of Sunnis over the latest terrorism plots. “I am a stranger in my neighborhood,” he said.
But the suspicions have two sides.
Inside Al Rabia market, shoppers from all sects and political backgrounds jostle for the same honeyed sesame candies, dried dates and plates of roasted lamb. The market’s Shiite owner, Saad Hamid Majid, has deep ties to both the Sunni and Shiite communities in Al Adel. But he admits he is still wary of his neighbors who stayed behind when he and other Shiite families fled.
Many Sunni families watched over houses vacated by their Shiite neighbors, but Mr. Majid believes others invited squatters and became the eyes of Sunni militants, passing along information about their Shiite neighbors.
“We told the Sunnis that we are brothers and can live together,” he said. “But they are not happy we’re coming back. You can see that in their eyes.”
In 2008, after three years of displacement, Mr. Bahadli and his family moved home. Their house was a wreck, but an ebb in the violence gave them space to rebuild. The family bought new couches and furniture for the parlor, and new birds to sing in backyard cages.
Mr. Bahadli took on a role as the neighborhood’s mayor, his family said. He wrangled garbage collectors. He paid grocery bills for widows. He mediated countless arguments while sipping glasses of syrupy black tea. The family reopened their ice cream shop.
“We were cautious at first,” said Mr. Bahadli’s brother Riyadh. “We took measures to protect ourselves. We all went out together. But day after day, we started to feel safe.”
More than anyone else, Mr. Bahadli felt as if he had reclaimed Al Adel, his family said. “He felt like the neighborhood was guarding him,” his brother Alaa said. “Like it all loved him.”
But on Jan. 17, Mr. Bahadli was coming home from the ice cream shop with his daughter and 2-year-old grandson when two men confronted them at their front gates. They drew their guns and fired. Mr. Bahadli and his grandson were both killed. His daughter survived, wounded by a bullet that passed through her hand and struck her son’s skull. Two Sunni men from the neighborhood were arrested in the shooting, but the Iraqi police would not identify them or make them available for an interview. Mr. Bahadli’s family members said they believed he was killed because he was one of Al Adel’s most prominent Shiites. “Killing him was a big achievement,” said his brother Riyadh.
A few days after his funeral, a crowd of Sunni and Shiite residents, tribal sheiks and neighborhood leaders gathered at the family’s door and urged them not to leave. They promised to look out for the family.
The family stayed, but they now live in terror. Mr. Bahadli’s mother weeps and implores her other sons to move away again. Recently, a car circled the block two times and the family suspected it was the prelude to another attack.
And a pall has fallen over much of Al Adel. Friendly Sunni residents mourn Mr. Bahadli’s death while worrying it will bring reprisals on their heads. And some Shiites, like Mithaq Sadia, a young mother, have steeled themselves for another sectarian conflict.
“This time,” she said, “we will make them feel fear.”